Returning a punt for 70 yards against New Mexico State? No problem for UCLA running back Steven Manfro.
“I just saw a little crease and I hit it,” the 5-foot-9, 189-pound redshirt sophomore said.
Catching a pass for the Bruins’ second touchdown Saturday and making the tackle on the Aggies’ ensuing kickoff? No big deal.
“Always, scoring just adds confidence to your play. It makes you want to get out there and just continue to help the team and play to the best of your abilities,” Manfro said, his tone very matter-of-fact.
Carrying the ball 12 yards for the third touchdown in UCLA’s eventual 59-13 rout at the Rose Bowl?
Discussing that finally drew a smile from the Valencia High graduate.
“There’s no better feeling in the world than getting a touchdown,” he said, “so there’s nothing wrong with getting more than one.”
Manfro’s performance was one of many fine efforts in a barrage that added up to school records of 39 first downs and 692 total yards and produced the Bruins’ first back-to-back 50-point games at home since 1973.
“Oh, God, he looked good, didn’t he?” offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone gushed.
Manfro’s next move will have to be his best yet: beating out a crowded field for playing time. That task will soon become tougher because senior running back Damien Thigpen, who injured his knee against USC last November, is expected to return in the next game, at Utah on Oct. 3.
As Manfro might say, nothing wrong with another challenge.
“It’s just more competing in practice and just keep on competing and competing,” said Manfro, who grew up in New York but came to California in 2002 after his father, a former New York City police officer assigned to recovery efforts at Ground Zero, moved the family west.
“And with competing, the best back comes out of it, and it’s just great.”
Coach Jim Mora expected to fill the job using a committee of running backs. He has been able to spread the load so far thanks to strong showings by Jordon James, Manfro, Malcolm Jones and Paul Perkins.
“It’s a heck of a group. I don’t know that there has to be a lead dog,” Mora said. “Obviously, statistically right now that’s Jordon, but they’re all very capable players. It’s an exciting group to watch….
“I think we just have to be very creative. Not so creative that we screw ourselves over trying to out-think ourselves or outscheme ourselves, but we’ve got to utilize those guys as much as possible because they’re good football players.”
Eight players had at least one carry Saturday for 298 yards, led by James’ 19 carries for 165 yards and two touchdowns. Manfro had two carries for 14 yards and one touchdown. Sixteen players caught at least one pass for 394 yards, with Manfro catching three for 53 yards and one touchdown. Only Devin Fuller, Perkins and Shaquelle Evans, with four catches each, had more than Manfro.
Mazzone said he used mostly one-back sets against Nebraska but a lot of two-back sets against New Mexico State, which got many players involved. “Steve keeps running like that, and Perk and those guys, I might be in three-back sets pretty quick,” he said.
That’s not realistic, but Manfro is doing his best to complicate the decision-making for Mora and Mazzone by bringing quickness and an explosive first step. His versatility on punt returns is another plus.
On Saturday, Mora said trying to project where Manfro will fit in is “a great problem to have.” The next day, Mora rephrased that. “It’s not really a problem. It’s just trying to figure out the best answer,” he said.
Manfro was a non-factor against Nebraska, getting only two carries for 10 yards. But Manfro’s reaction impressed Mora enough to get him more involved against New Mexico State.
“Rather than express his disappointment by sulking, he really had a great week of practice and then he came out [Saturday] and played extremely well. And that’s what you love to see,” Mora said.
“That, to me, really defines his character. Rather than sulking and complaining, he just worked hard and it paid off for him because he played very, very well.”
Manfro seemed surprised to think he might have reacted any other way. “You can’t really sulk on something that happened in the past,” he said. “You just need to move forward and just practice hard and make them have no option but to put you on the field.”
He did that last Saturday, giving Mora and Mazzone plenty to think about during this bye week.
“That’s always the goal,” Manfro said. “I always want to get on the field. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
No, nothing at all.